I remember an incident that was shared with me. While interviewing at a firm, a colleague witnessed a male employee (whom she later learnt was the COO) shouting at a junior employee (female), while she stood there quietly. When my colleague brought it up with the HR who was interviewing her, they seemed rather nonchalant about the entire episode. While this was definitely a red flag in her mind, she assumed there might be more to it than she knew. In hindsight she had also noted other red flags during her conversations but decided not to pay heed to her gut. She joined the company only to leave in less than a year.
We spend most of our waking hours at work and a toxic work culture can play havoc on our mental wellbeing. The findings of an SHRM survey in 2019 on the US workforce was that 1 in 5 employees quit their job due to workplace culture and the cost of this turnover – $223 billion in the past five years.
It made me wonder, what are some tell tale signs of a toxic workplace.
- Poor leadership – there are a variety of bad bosses that can contribute to a toxic workplace:
- Weak Leaders: The leaders are afraid to take risks or enable new opinions/voices to be heard for fear of being replaced. Most often such leaders are not respected and belief in their actions will also be limited.
- Aggressive/micromanaging leaders: ever had a boss who believed in my way or the highway.
- Cliques/power centers/favoritism: where leaders play favorites. Where every individual feels like he is being evaluated and his price surges or falls like a stock market.
- Low energy – have you ever entered a workplace and felt an instant surge of energy or exactly the opposite – as if someone burst your bubble? Well the latter spells disaster if its felt on a constant basis. I remember a team member once telling me about an organisation she worked for. The employees shied away from engaging in conversations beyond work and always looked serious for fear of their manager or some other leaders assuming that they were not fully occupied. In such workplaces, employees fear being judged.
- Weak HR – the HR function is so critical and should get a seat at the table since they stand for employees rights and play a critical role to ensure a productive and engaged workforce. However, in a toxic workplace HR doesn’t have a voice and simply plays an administrative role. They are not easily approachable or almost non existent.
- Constantly changing goals/vision – Often changing vision or goal posts. There is an inability of the leaders to believe in their set goals and cascade the same even for a quarter. Where a vision exercise is done with great gusto only to be forgotten post the next quarter results.
- Lack of diversity – who is considered as most critical in the organisation? Are they constantly promoted or enjoy all the perks while others don’t. In toxic workplaces most often certain teams/profiles/personality types get maximum attention and mileage while others tend to be overshadowed by their high maintenance counterparts. In an organisation I worked for, I remember a conversation which had stirred regarding starting SIP and one of the dissenting views that had come in was from a junior employee stating that all teams enable project completion and its not only the sales teams which are responsible for it, so why the favouritism. The fact that she was able to, firstly, speak up in a forum where almost 100 people were present and, secondly, to have the management listen and understand her views, spoke volumes for the culture that was ingrained.
- Dysfunctional teams – Chaos reigns in such a setup. Roles are not clearly defined and different functions/teams are driving different agendas. There are disjointed operations, because often, silos exist due to lack of communication and trust. People are often seen politicking which can severely challenge any sort of collaboration or relationships.
- Values which are simply on paper – have you ever looked at an organisation and smirked at any of their values, since you knew it was far from truth? Values are the bedrock of shaping the culture of an organisation and serve as guiding principles for decision making. In a toxic workplace there is complete dissonance in corporate values and the actions of leaders which can lead to unethical or discriminatory behaviour.